Photo: Ken Stein
[quote]“Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don't come up with a picture to cure world poverty, you can make someone smile while they're having a piss.”[/quote]
Imagine New York City in the 1970’s. Chances are, graffiti is part of that gritty picture. But while once associated with rundown urban environments, graffiti is now being used for inverse effect: beautification.
Brooklyn has commissioned a new graffiti mural in a neglected, gloomy alleyway, with the goal of brightening an otherwise unsightly area, and the Detroit Beautification Project brings together artists from all over the world to paint murals across the recently bankrupt city. Graffiti can be a powerful medium to revitalize -- and often reimagine -- forgotten spaces.
But graffiti isn’t just about colorful images; it also sends a message. Graffiti is particularly rampant across the Middle East, especially in places like Bethlehem and Cairo, where it’s being used to make a political statement. Its prevalence there is fitting, given that it’s been compared to hieroglyphics and dates back as far as Paleolithic cave art. In Beirut, graffiti is actually “close to” legal (unless it deals with sex, religion, or politics -- some of graffiti artists’ favorite topics).
We think of a graffiti artist’s tag as their “label,” but what happens when corporate brands get involved? This street art/branding intersect is at work in Brazil: In 2007, Sao Paulo banned billboards and all outdoor advertising to cut down on “visual pollution,” but they’re now allowing corporate-sponsored graffiti -- it’s still technically advertising, but it’s presented as art.
Not everyone thinks graffiti should be glamorized, and some cities, like Pawtucket, are creating a database of taggers in an effort to crack down on crime and gang-related activity. So are taggers artists or criminals? Is graffiti art or vandalism? Even if it is illegal and technically classified as vandalism, doesn’t it still play a significant cultural role in serving as a canvas for free speech and political commentary?
In addition to the controversy around labeling it trash or treasure (an elusive categorization), the question of ownership also comes into play: one mural, believed to be Banksy's work, was recently sold at auction after it was removed from the side of a London shop. If something was tagged illegally, can it also be illegal to remove it? And who should financially benefit from the work (if anyone)?
The ephemeral vulnerability of graffiti is part of its allure. And that transience is not just about “cleaning up” a facade: If another graffiti artist dislikes a piece, takes offense from it, or wants to add onto the work, they may write over it -- in which case, are they vandalizing vandalism or co-creating art? (This website has several images of graffiti that have been “vandalised” by other graffiti artists.)
Still unsure about where you stand on graffiti? Follow these tips to explore it first-hand and rethink your opinion:
Wear: KTZ is a streetwear brand which blends urban culture with high fashion. Make a statement by graffiting yourself in their edgy patches and prints.
Do you think graffiti is vandalism or art? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!